28 September 2016

Through others' eyes #nlpoli

For Newfoundland's pseudo-intellectuals,  the Toronto Globe and Mail is a kind of one-handed reading material.  They use one hand to scroll down the Internet site looking at stuff.  They use the other to stroke the keys of their computer until it spurts indignation all over the screen about something someone in the Globe said or didn't say about Newfoundland.

They are an easy bunch to click-bait, as the Globe editors showed this past weekend. The province's gaggle of celebrities took to the Internet to slag columnist Margaret Wente or Confederation.  Hans Rollman exploded in a ball of perpetual, fabricated victimhood. Ed Riche pretended he was above it all and, always one to spot a hot, if insubstantial, trend,  CBC produced an online piece about the negativity.

On Monday, the corp even got Wente to suffer through an interview about her recent trip to Fogo Island. "Do you understand how wrong you were?"  Grand Inquisitor Debbie asked the penitent mainlander. "Do you repent your sins?"

Yes, said Wente looking like she was going to tear-up any second. "I got Newfoundland wrong,"

Never, in the history of journalism, has so much been made by so many about so little.

But in the much-making?  Well, there we have something to marvel at.

Some people dismissed Wente as a safari journalist. She was.  Every bit of the reporter who drops into a place,  asks a few locals some stock questions, and then frigs off back to civilization having "bagged" a story.  Wente's Saturday column was full of self-indulgence and stereotyping of Newfoundlanders of the worst kind.  She offered no insights into anything or anyone.

Wente could never have seen the story she was right in the midst of.  Never seen it if someone handed the whole thing to her, typed up and everything.  Wente would never have seen the story because she wasn't interested in anything but herself. There's no excuse for the indignant bunch.  These people are from here.  They had a story right in their laps and ignored it.  

A community in transformation

Fishing used to be the main business on Fogo Island.  To be sure, people still fish out of the communities around the coast but things are changing.  That's significant because in the 1960s, while other communities around Newfoundland disappeared,  the people of Fogo resisted the resettlement program. Everywhere else in Newfoundland, people were taking government money, leaving their little villages, and heading into so-called growth centres.

What happened on Fogo Island was immortalised in a series of films by the National Film Board.  It was part of an experiment in social development.  A bunch came down from the mainland,  filmed people talking about changes in their community, and what they thought could happen in their towns. "By recording people talking about the issues," as the NFB website about the project puts it, "and then playing those recordings back to the community, everyone was able to get a global view of what the problems were and work together towards resolving them."

The people of Fogo Island didn't resettle.  They formed the Fogo Island Co-operative Society.  " To ensure our survival, we turned to what we knew best for hundreds of years—the sea. Following a process of community self-discovery now known worldwide as the Fogo Process, our fishers formed the Fogo Island Co-operative Society, a community based enterprise on which we built the economy of our island. We built more boats. We built bigger boats. We took over processing facilities abandoned by private enterprise. We built more plants. We sought new markets. And the Fogo Island Co-op has not only survived, it has succeeded."

These days, though, Fogo Island is becoming a very different place than the one people imagined 50 years ago. They still fish, of course, but the biggest economic news is a hotel built on the island by an ex-pat and her millions earned in the American IT industry.  She built a hotel that only Danny Williams could afford to stay in and hired a bunch of locals to look after them or entertain them.

Others are helping to transform Fogo into even more of a tourist destination. People are building new homes in the style of traditional homes. They are fixing up their old places. What they do in relation to the hotel, though, is not live their ordinary lives as they used to do and their ancestors did.  The locals are now presenting a packaged, sanitised show for the visitors,  a kind of live-action theme park.

The hotel isn't the only thing. If nothing else,  the cost of it - nearly $1500 a night Canadian - is too much for people who yearn to have the celebrities' experience but who lack the the stature - intellectual or otherwise  - of the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow.  Those people can find a place to put their head in one of the new or refurbished bed and breakfast establishments that have sprung up on Fogo Island.  That's where Wente stayed.

The hotel was a private-sector development, unlike the community process of a half-century ago.  In place of the NFB, CBC sent a crew, as did countless other media outlets, to document this modern marvel.  "Innovative community revitalization project" the marketing materials would have it and that's the sort of phrase you see faithfully produced in the coverage.  The pictures of the place are gorgeous. And the CBC writer took the gorgeous words of some copywriter and put them together to reflect back to the people of Fogo what someone is making out of them.

What first brought people to Fogo was the wealth that came from the sea.  People could make a living taking what nature provided,  packaging it up, and shipping it off for other consume.  They made food. And for four or five hundred years, they made food and made families and communities, and lives, and a culture.

These days, though, people on Fogo Island are manufacturing something else.  They are creating an imaginary version of their communities, their culture, and their lives, for rich foreigners to consume.   Fogo Islanders have gone from packaging other things for consumption to packaging themselves.  Even the less expensive version that Wente got is a facsimile,  a caricature of the real thing.

Flags, Lies, and Hypocrites

As in 2016,  people got hung up on the superficial trappings of Wente's column in January 2005.  It's easy to forget what happened then, as people like Hans Rollman demonstrate.  Big column.  Utter nonsense about 2005, every word.  There's no reason to recite the year-long battle in detail.  You can find it in the "War with Ottawa" series in  August 2015.  It is useful, though, to go back and look at what Wente wrote in January 2005 and why.

"In Newfoundland and Labrador,"  Wente began, "Danny Williams can do no wrong. These days, he’s more popular than God. Following his lead, the people of the Rock have banished the Maple Leaf from their dominion. Angry citizens are flooding open-line shows and threatening that, unless they get what’s owed to them by Canada, Newfoundland should go it alone."

"Unless they get what's owed to them by Ottawa."  Ottawa owed nothing.  The provincial government collected every penny of the offshore royalties it set under the 1985 Atlantic Accord.  The federal government got none of it.  What's more,  the provincial government collected Equalization payments as if the oil royalties never existed.  They got the original payments under the Atlantic Accord.  On top of that, the government got the option of another Equalization calculation and the ability to chose which one they wanted.  The provincial government could pick which version of the Equalization payment it got at the end of the year.  That way, they could always make sure the government got the most money.

What Williams wanted, originally, was a payment from Ottawa equal to the value of oil royalties in a year. It was part of a fraud originally spelled out in a royal commission Roger Grimes set up.  The fraud claimed the federal government took away something - the Equalization payments - that the provincial government was entitled to get, regardless. In other versions of the story the federal government supposedly took away oil royalties.  Not a word of truth in any of it, as Williams and his finance minister subsequently admitted.

Prime Minister Paul Martin agreed to help the provincial government out financially in January 2004. In May, Williams rejected Martin's offer of an extra transfer payment for a period of time.  All the same,  Williams started talks with the federal government in the fall over precisely that arrangement. The federal government never changed its basic offer.  Williams, though, grew progressively more and more shrill in his claims.

By December, when he hauled down Canadian flags from provincial buildings,  Williams was desperate to squeeze something more out of Ottawa to show for his increasing hysterics.  The federal government had simply stood firm no matter what Williams and his supporters did since Williams' demands were a complete non-starter. His flag stunt pissed off Canadians across the country , as Williams own polling showed.  Even in Newfoundland and Labrador,  respondents to his polling were firmly behind him on every one of five questions except the flag one.  There, the nearly unanimous support among Newfoundlanders and Labradorians shattered.

Wente was right when she said that "their flag protest isn’t winning them much sympathy on this side of the Gulf of St. Lawrence."  Perhaps she didn't realise how right she was.  Perhaps Williams did.  "The sensation on this side,"  Wente added, " is of a deep and painful bite to the hand that feeds."

There was a line designed to cut Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to the bone.  Up to Williams, every Premier had desperately wanted to end the provincial government;s dependence on Ottawa. Self-reliance was his goal too, Williams said at the time, but his Ottawa scam like his Equalization racket in the years afterwards would have had the opposite result, if Williams had succeeded.  Having half the government's income in the form of hand-outs from Ottawa stuck in everyone's throat in the province. They didn't like being reminded of it.

The Wente episode would turn out to be full of bizarre moments.  CBC would pit Wente against John Crosbie, for example.  The former federal cabinet minister verbally slapped Wente's central Canadian haughtiness.  But 15 years earlier,  Crosbie had been the regional minister for Newfoundland and Labrador in Brian Mulroney's last administration.  The provincial government went looking for some adjustments in the Equalization offsets so that when oil finally started flowing,  the Equalization offsets would work exactly as Brian Mulroney had intended in 1985.

 Crosbie dismissed the provincial requests,  saying that the government shouldn't bite the hand that fed it.  He accused the premier and his ministers of wanting to eat their cake and vomit it up as well.  Crosbie liked the phrase.  In his 1997 memoir, Crosbie quoted comments he'd made in the 1980s in a dispute with the provincial government over funding for the Come-by-Chance oil refinery.
"Both the Premier and his Finance minister, John Collins, accused the federal government of being insensitive to regional needs and of not paying attention to Newfoundland. At the time Ottawa was providing 50 per cent of the revenues of their government. I called a news conference to point out this interesting fact: 'Dr. Collins is suffering from at least two human failings,' I said. ' One appears to be greed, the other ingratitude. He seems to specialize in biting the hand that feeds him..." 
There is plenty of anger and condescension in Wente's column but there are also harsh words that ring even more true in light of William's calamitous financial legacy: "Because of stupendous political malfeasance, it is at least $11-billion in debt."  That $11 billion was nothing.  Williams' Muskrat Falls mess would double that and the legacy of his chronic overspending will add another $10 billion to that again at the very least.

The public mood at the time, though, didn't allow for much in the way of thought.  The media were among the most eager to cover Williams and his tirades.  They were easy pickings and good for ratings, just as a decade later, Wente would prove easy pickings.

In hindsight, Wente turned out to have a good read of the mood outside of Newfoundland and Labrador. Anyone with a clue might have picked it up at the time.  The locals never got it, though, then or now. Just like they thought her column in early February praised Danny Williams when she was really just documenting the deeper problems that came out of the side deal Martin cut with Williams.

One "problem with this deal is that everybody on the mainland feels ripped off,"  Wente wrote on February 3.  "Even the Toronto Star, that arch-defender of redistributing the wealth, feels ripped off. The way we [mainlanders] see it, Danny pulled a fast one and Mr. Martin let him get away with it. The irony is, Mr. Martin won't even get the votes the rest of us have paid so dearly for."

If you chase the easy and the obvious you can see one thing.  But there is often a lot more to appreciate, if you want to see it.  Sometimes all you have to do is look at the world or about yourself through someone else's eyes.